In my last article, I started taking a look at some of the conventional wisdom for survival kits and bug out bags. There are a great many things we do in the survival and prepping community, simply because others do them. But that doesn't mean that what we're doing is the best. Times have changed, and the things we have available to use for survival are greatly different than what was available to us 10 or 20 years ago.
I've always said that if you're doing things the same way you've always done them, it's time for a change. As an engineer, that attitude served me well, because all too often the ways that people had always done things didn't take advantage of the technology available to us today. Well, the same can be said for survival.
There's a whole industry out there, working to come up with new gadgets and equipment to sell to those of us who have decided to take responsibility for our own lives and prepare. While a fair amount of those products are nothing more than gimmicks, designed more for the purpose of making money, than the purpose of really helping anyone survive; there are a lot of things that are truly useful. And I've got to say, sometimes the things that seem like gimmicks turn out to be extremely useful when you take a good look at them through the lens of a survival situation.
With that in mind, I've been rediscovering the bug out bag. Now, let me clarify my personal ideas about a bug out bag, before we go any farther. My personal bug out bag is more a giant-sized survival kit, than it is anything else. While I carry a lot of the same equipment that many other people do, my decisions are made based on needing to survive long-term with what's in that bag.
For that reason, my personal bug out bag is a bit heavier on survival equipment and tools than many people's are. On the flip side of the coin, I really don't have a very appetizing panty in it. I'm counting mostly on high energy bars to get me through the first few days, to be quickly replaced by food that I hunt and gather in the wild.
Granted, that's a risky decision to make. Gathering and hunting food is not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. Nor do I live in an area where game is plentiful. But three or five days food isn't enough either. So, I've gone for the lightest weight and bulk in food that I can, making that tradeoff so that I can carry more useful survival gear with me. Ultimately, that should help me to survive better than carrying tastier food or even carrying another two days worth of food.
We talked about fire, shelter, water and food in part one of this article. In this part, I want to focus on tools. This category, along with weapons are probably the heaviest ones that you will be carrying, so you really want to think them through. Make sure that what you're carrying is really going to provide you with the capabilities that you need. Otherwise, it's a waste.
In my not so humble opinion, tools are one of the most important things you can carry in your bug out bag. The reason I say that is that one of the things that separates man from the animal kingdom is our ability to use tools. While there are a few animals out there who use some rudimentary forms of tools, none have developed our skills with them or developed tools that are anywhere near as complex as a knife, let alone our more complex tools.
The right tools allow us to make everything else we need. So to me, they become to a large part, the basis of survival. That's especially true when we're talking long-term survival. Because as humans, we aren't going to be satisfied with living in debris huts forever. A long-term survival situation means building some sort of long-term shelter.
That means not only having the right sorts of tools, but the knowledge of how to use them as well. Of course, knowledge is the greatest survival tool there is. But that knowledge is normally coupled with using something to make or do something else. So, we're back to tools again.
There are actually a myriad of different types of tools out there. So perhaps you might be a bit confused about what I'm actually saying. So, let me make myself perfectly clear. As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing in my bug out bag, is the tools necessary to build a shelter. With those, I can accomplish just about everything I need.
I think that everyone would agree that of all the survival tools there are, the knife is the most important. That stems from the knife's general utility, being able to be used for so many different things. While it might not be the most efficient tool for every need, it is able to do so many of them, that having a good knife and knowing how to use it is critical to survival.
One of the key words there is "good." After much soul-searching and years of experience, I've come to the conclusion that there's no such thing as spending too much money on a knife. That's quite a stretch for me, as I'm a real tightwad in a lot of things. But, I've got to add, just because you spend a lot on a knife, doesn't mean that you're getting a good one.
A good knife is all about the steel. Quality steel makes all the difference in the world. My daughter just got married and my son bought her a kitchen knife as a wedding present; just one. But he paid over $200 for that knife. Why? Because of the steel. That knife's edge was ground at a 16 degree angle, which is much sharper than most knives. But it's also made of a mixture of steels which will hold an edge incredibly well. If a knife won't hold its edge, then it's not good, no matter what name is on it or how big the price tag was.
The big problem with most "survival knives" is gimmicks. They replace good steel with other things that are supposed to help you survive. I've seen everything from fishing kits, to built-in compasses. I even have a knife that has a slingshot built into the sheath. But, the thing is, if the knife won't stay sharp, none of those gimmicks will make a difference anyway.
So spend money on a good blade and leave the waterproof match holders and the built-in whetstones for other tools. Pick a knife you're comfortable with, not one to impress. I won't tell you what shape blade to get, because there are lots of opinions about that. But I will say that a mid-sized knife (4" - 6") is much easier to work with than a big bowie.
One last point, your knife needs two accessories. The first is a whetstone, so that you can keep it sharp. It's amazing to me how few people actually have a whetstone of any sort in their bug out bag. But if your survival knife is your most important tool, then you want to be able to take care of it. Better to have a whetstone that you know you can sharpen your knife on, then to try to find a rock somewhere that you can use.
The other accessory is a spare knife. Even though I depend on my sheath knife as my main blade, I also carry a pocket knife. This does two things for me. The first is helps me protect my sheath knife. By using the pocket knife for more mundane tasks, I protect the blade on my big knife. The other thing it does is give me a backup. While I wouldn't want to have to depend on my pocket knife as my only blade, I'd rather depend on it, than not have anything at all.
After the knife, I'd have to say that the saw is the second most important tool, although I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would disagree with me. To many, the hatchet or tomahawk are more important. But I find it easier to cut tree branches for making a shelter with a saw, rather than with a hatchet.
The thing is, most people don't carry a good saw with them. The only saws they have are either a wire saw or a saw that's part of a knife. Neither of these is any good. I guess if all you want to cut are branches 1/2 inch thick, they'll do. But if you want to cut a three or four inch branch to use as a ridge pole for a tent or other shelter, you're going to need something better.
Something better isn't a wire saw, regardless of what anyone says. I've carried a wire saw for years and I've finally given up on them. While a wire saw is nice and compact, it really can't survive any heavy usage. Besides, have you ever really tried cutting a tree branch with one? It takes half of forever.
I've experimented with several different saws and have come up with three options that I like, one of which I think is outstanding. That one is a folding pruning saw. These saws, which look about like a giant pocket knife, are extremely sharp and designed specifically for cutting through green branches. That makes them ideal in a survival situation. Typically the blade is 8 to 13 inches long, so they are long enough for cutting descent sized branches. At the same time, they are light enough so that they won't burden you down.
The second saw I've found that I like for a bug out bag is a bow saw. Now, I realize that a bow saw is a bit large for most bug out bags, but they are lightweight. You could actually strap one on the outside, without it being much of a problem.
But I'm really not talking about taking the whole bow saw along in a bug out bag. What I really mean is to take a bow saw blade along. You can buy these separately, usually sold as replacement blades. Then, when you're out in the wilderness, you can cut a bow out of a sapling or green branch. Tie the ends of the blades to the bowed branch with paracord, and you've got a very effective saw. One that will cut even better than the folding pruning saw.
Finally, the third option I've found is a machete with a saw blade on the backside of the blade. A few different companies make these, including Gerber. If you like a machete, this gives you a pretty good saw, which is long enough for cutting good sized branches.
Now, I'll have to say that the saw blade on these machetes isn't as good as the saw blade in the other two I've mentioned. It's not as sharp. But it will still do a descent job, especially because it's long enough to really give you a good cutting stroke when you use it. Not only that, but you've got a machete blade to use for other things.
Few people bother with a machete in this country, but in other parts of the world, it's considered one of the most useful tools around. People who own few tools, or perhaps even no other tools, are likely to have machetes.
I never truly appreciated the general utility of a machete until I spent time in Mexico. Mexican farmers and workers have truly turned the machete into an all-purpose tool, right on par with a knife. That convinced me that a machete would be a useful survival tool. Now, I have one strapped to the outside of my bug out bag, so that I can make sure I take it with me.
The machete I have has a saw back on it, adding even more to its utility. While it is possible to cut a branch off with just the machete blade, there are times when more precision might be called for. While I have seen some men who have that skill, I don't. So I bought a machete that allows me to use it as a saw, as well.
The machete has the capability of being used as a hatchet, a saw (if you buy one with a blade on it) and as a weed eater. Your sheathe knife, hatchet or tomahawk aren't going to help you clear a path, cutting thick underbrush to get through. Yet the machete excels like no other tool, when performing this function. If you have to take one tool into the brush with you, it had better be a machete. You can also use it quite well to dig with, without a whole lot of concern about damaging the blade. So, if you lose your shovel and still have a machete, you don't have a problem.
Another advantage of the machete is that it serves as a fairly effective sword. So, it provides you with a close-range melee weapon, without adding anything to your pack. If you are using the machete anyway, either to clear trail or as a tool, then you'll already have it in your hand, ready to go.
Machetes come in various sizes, at least when you buy them overseas. While short machetes provide you with a greater degree of control, making them more popular amongst survivalists. However, a longer machete actually provides more capability, especially when cutting tree branches or saplings. The longer length gives you more leverage, so you are able to cut deeper with each swing, completing the work in less time and with less effort.
Historically, the hatchet has been one of the most used survival tools. A good hatchet will not only be useful for cutting wood, but the reverse side of the head is flat, allowing it to be used as a hammer. This increases the utility of the tool, providing you with the ability to drive tent stakes or wood pegs, increasing your ability to build a shelter.
Granted, a hatchet really isn't as good as an axe. With its smaller, lighter head and shorter handle, it can't cut wood as well as an axe can. Even so, other than a saw, it's the best wood cutter you are going to be able to carry in your pack.
Nevertheless, if you have a saw and a machete, you don't necessarily need a hatchet. I carry both, but only because I found a very inexpensive and lightweight hatchet. Actually, it's a combination hatchet, crowbar and hammer. While the finish on the tool isn't spectacular, the utility of it is. I carry it more for the crowbar and hammer head, than for the hatchet head. However, it works fine for splitting small logs, especially ones I'm making tent pegs out of. So, I have my machete strapped to one side of the pack and my hatchet strapped to the other side.
There are a lot of people in the prepping movement who are using tomahawks, rather than hatchets. I have to ask... why? The tomahawk is designed to be a weapon, not a tool. As such, it really doesn't make an excellent tool for cutting wood. If they want it for a weapon, that's fine, but they also need to take into consideration what they are going to use for cutting wood.
If you feel that you need a melee weapon, then a tomahawk might be the way to go. As a weapon, it can be used for both swinging and throwing. But like any thrown weapon, if you throw it, there's always the chance of an enemy using it against you. So, you'd better have some good strategy to go with your ability to throw it accurately.
The folding camp shovel is another long-time standby. Part of this is that the military has issued shovels as part of a soldier's field gear since at least World War I. But for the military, the shovel is for digging foxholes; something that any infantry soldier needs to be able to do.
So the question is, is the shovel necessary for a survivalist? While I would have to say that it is not absolutely necessary, I would also say that it is useful. The ability to dig a hole allows you to make a latrine for sanitation, dig a fire pit, bury your garbage, put out a fire with sand and channel rainwater around your tent, rather than having it run through the tent.
So, the pure utility of a shovel makes it a logical choice to take along. But finding a good shovel can be harder than you would expect.
The biggest problem I've seen with most camp shovels is that they are not built very well. The manufacturers have a real problem with the tradeoff between making their product light and making it strong. It has to be light, so that it doesn't overburden the person carrying it. But at the same time, the last thing you or I need is a tool that falls apart during a bug out.
This is one tool that I prefer to avoid buying over the internet. There really is no way of seeing how good the quality is, when all you have is a small photo. You need to hold it in your hands and examine it with your eyes. Specifically, you're looking to make sure that the metal is thick enough that it won't bend and the folding joint won't fall apart after a few uses. Some have cheap rivets or just sloppy workmanship, making that joint extremely fragile.
Personally, I prefer a shovel with a longer handle, rather than a shorter one. I find that it is easier to dig with. I also like having a pick head, even though the folded sheet metal pick isn't anywhere near as good as a cast one. Even so, it helps speed up the digging process.
Besides that, I'd avoid any other "extras" on a shovel. The saw blades I've seen on shovels are a joke, unable to cut much of anything. A compass in the handle is more or less useless, as you're not going to walk down the trail with your shovel in your hand. You'll probably have another compass anyway. Likewise, the survival kits in the handles are there to sell you the product, not because they really help you in any real way.
I find the fact that the multi-tool has made it into so many survival kits and bug out bags almost humorous. I have a couple of multi-tools and find them quite useful. But I really don't see them as survival tools. Perhaps that's because I don't expect to encounter too many screws that need removing out in the woods.
The knife blade in a multi-tool can serve as a backup knife, although it's not as good as a separate folding knife and the saw can serve as a backup saw, even though it's very short. But neither of those will work out extremely well in the wilderness. You'd actually be better off with more specialized tools.
Of course, urban survival is another issue. I keep a multi-tool in my EDC, because if I have to make it home sometime during a disaster, I think it would be useful. I also find myself using it for a host of other everyday problems, which is, of course, what an EDC is for.
There is one other place where a multi-tool is useful; that's to repair your other tools. While it may not be the best tool box around, it's the smallest and lightest one you can find. That makes it very useful. Should you run into a problem with your camp stove or shovel, having a pair of pliers and a screwdriver might just keep your tools working. For that, a multi-tool is well worth carrying along with you.
While somewhat in a category by itself, the flashlight is usually categorized as a tool when talking about survival kits and bug out bags. I personally am a fan of flashlights and tend to collect them a bit. But even though I have flashlights in every room of the house, that doesn't mean I should take my collection with me on a bug out.
The questing here is one of utility. Flashlights, as we all know, need batteries and the batteries don't last all that long. This is especially true of the really bright tactical lights we have available today. While I think those are extremely useful tools, they aren't the best tool on a bug out.
I find it most effective to carry a couple of different flashlights with me. First, I've got a high-power LED tactical light (600 lumens), with two spare rechargeable batteries. This gives me a bright light that I can use when I need it, mostly for defensive purposes. I also carry a 100 lumen light, which lasts much longer on a battery charge. This is my main flashlight. When it comes to things in camp, this is the flashlight that I use. Finally, I have a miniature 10 lumen light on my key ring, for those times when I just need a little light.
Some people carry a head light and I think they are great. But I find it more flexible to carry the lights mentioned, as well as a headband which will hold either of the larger lights. That way, I can use the lights handheld or hands-free, as the situation warrants.I also carry several extra batteries for each of the lights. However, my intent is to avoid using them as much as possible. All batteries have a finite amount of electrical power in them, and so I choose to use mine only when absolutely necessary. Instead of burning them, I try to do as much as I can during daylight and then allow my eyes to adjust to the night, after the sun goes down. That way, I have my night vision to help me defend myself and my family.